Smith Creek Archaeological Project - In the Lab

Erin and others on an archaeological dig

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Project Summary

In May, I got the opportunity to travel to Wilkinson County, Mississippi, to take part in Dr. Kassabaum’s archaeological dig. The Smith Creek Archaeological Project (SCAP) is a Native American mound site that was occupied three separate times between approximately 200 BC and 1300 AD. Like many of the other mound sites in the surrounding area, three mounds, built during the second occupation between approximately 700 and 900 AD, surround an open plaza where the people would have lived. We spent most of our time digging in the northeast part of the plaza. During SCAP’s last season in 2016, they dug in the NE plaza as well, and at about 75 mm deep, they discovered a wall trench – the remains of the wall of some kind of structure. Soil samples from the trench yielded a tiny persimmon seed that was dated to 200 BC – much earlier than Dr. Kassabaum imagined. This season, we dug units on either side of the 2016 unit to uncover more of the trench and expand our understanding of its size and shape. By the end, we had mapped what looks to be a little more than half of the remains of a large circular structure, approximately eleven meters in diameter.

This experience gave me insight into many facets of archaeology. I learned the history of the Lower Mississippi area, both prehistoric and historic. I learned about mound-building and the natural geology of the area. I learned how to dig efficiently and what tools to use when. I learned different methods of collecting artifacts. Also, because of PURM, I was able to return to Philadelphia later in the summer and work in Dr. Kassabaum’s lab in the Penn Museum. There, I learned what happens to artifacts after they are found in the field. I washed so much pottery that I can now look at a potsherd and estimate its age. Although I am more interested in human remains than in cultural remains, all of these basic techniques are extremely applicable to me as an Anthropology student and I am grateful that I got to learn them in such an encouraging environment.

Growing up an only child on the east coast (and having never been further west than Pittsburgh), I was excited not only to go on my very first dig but also to live in a place quite different from what I am used to. For four weeks, I shared a small cabin with seven other girls, sleeping in bunkbeds stuffed into two tiny bedrooms. We were way out in the woods, twenty minutes from the tiny town center. The mosquitoes and horseflies were rampant, and we couldn’t step outside without sweating. Yet there was something quite magical about the whole experience. It was basically adult summer camp. I learned many important archaeological procedures that I can transfer to other digs I may go on in the future, but I experienced personal growth as well. SCAP was really a lesson in learning to work with others disguised as a field school, and I found it to be an incredibly valuable experience.

For more information and project updates, follow Smith Creek Archaeological Project on Facebook and Instagram (@scapupenn)!